Mice Who Stop Fearing Cats

We enjoy having a feeling that we are in control in our lives, and most of us will do incredible feats of mental gymnastics to retain that (often) illusory belief. We may cede to some amount of circumstantial nudging, but overall we want to believe, especially if from America, that ultimately we are in control of  at least our belief system and behaviors. But what if I told you there’s a very good chance the biome in your own body, that is the microbial life and previous footprint of infections, could be a very large determining factor in your mood and perhaps even risk taking behaviors?

Many have heard about the effects found in mice that become infected with toxoplasmosis.

These mice often lose their innate fear of cats (whose feces is the source of the infection).  Of course these mice become easier to catch and become dinner. The cycle continues and the microbe flourishes. This infection seems to slip into the mouse brain, hijacking’s some measure of risk taking behavior. It would be wildly narcissistic to think that similar effects aren’t possible in our also mammalian brain with certain infections that target all systems. After all, why would they use mice in so many scientific studies and extrapolate data to the human population if there weren’t similar effects at play?

The studies of depression and the protective effect from probiotic type microbes in the gut are in their infancy, but an undeniable link is proving to exist. That is not to say, something as complicated as depression during these somewhat dystopian times can be distilled down to some bad actor bacteria in your gut, but when even a slight dysphoric nudge could mean the difference between life and death, it matters.

Where am I going with this? Mainly food for thought, maybe a snack for the microbes haunting our brains. We can’t deny we are seeing some strange behavior in regard to the risk for long Covid. True, it’s very complicated and probably stems in large part from denial and a nostalgia for 2019 (back in those heady days of what… maybe only 75% assurance our society was on the wrong path). But again, if active infection can impact decision making and executive function, this would definitely explain some of the more egregious flaunting of risk when there is no evident benefit to doing so. Is it so far fetched to think we might be seeing some behaviors nudged by the multiple infections people have suffered? The most successful infective agents are not those that drop their victims rapidly, as in something like Ebola. No, the most successful leave a walking wounded, there to continue the cycle.

I want to be clear that this is in no way discounting the effect of predatory capitalism forcing people to  work when ill in a system without covered healthcare for huge amounts of people working in service sector jobs. This is another layer of our poor response and part of what has been framed as inevitable twice a year infection despite the Russian roulette nature of Covid and subsequent increased risk for debilitating long Covid. I’m simply exploring other facets to the phenomenon we find ourselves grappling with. We need to understand exponential growth and subsequent risk or face five years from now pondering why we have no able bodied work force and a plummeting life expectancy (both effects are showing to be in their infancy and growing).

This may sound deterministic and depressing, but even if this is occurring to some extent, we do have wildly complicated brains. A lot is possible. Those who are bilingual recover from strokes more efficiently. Studies have proven that those who meditate can impact their neural connections in a positive manner. This is to illustrate the potential inherent to our minds and what is possible. The very circumstance of knowing that you might be behaving in a certain manner due to infections, past and current, might be enough to allow for other connections in the mind to be made. A lot can stem from simple awareness. Of course this is all speculative, but what harm can come from realizing that one might be influenced from some unexpected directions? I’m not saying you ate infected flour and now you’re ready to spread like a mushroom… or maybe I am.

How about this? We all make an effort to think in new ways, to aim for an awareness of when we might be slipping into autopilot. Let us aim for a default mode (even when it feels awkward) of questioning and empathy. This seems to be a remedy for almost all of our travails during these interesting times.

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest. Her writing is collected on her Substack page.